IOWA CITY, Iowa — Josey Jewell wouldn’t mince words.
Living through the North Dakota State loss was bad enough. Sitting through it all over again, and watching the Bison run all over Iowa, was almost worse.
“It sucks,” the Iowa linebacker said. “It sucks to watch a game that you lose. It sucks to watch a game that you didn’t play that well in.”
But here’s the rub. Iowa must solve its defensive run issues if it’s to become the team it was built up to be in the preseason, one capable of contending for a Big Ten West Division title.
There is no way around it. Iowa is 11th in the Big Ten in rush defense, allowing 174.3 yards per game. Improving it is the most important thing the Hawkeyes must do as they enter Big Ten play.
“If you can’t stop the run you can’t win games,” Iowa linebacker Ben Niemann said. “So we have to stop the ground game first.”
It’s easy for disgust, dejection and anger to rise up when forced to relive an opponent like North Dakota rushing for 239 yards on Iowa, and it did for Jewell. But he kept noticing one other thing. Communication is a problem.
It’s not in one spot. Pre-snap, when players go motion, when defensive calls get changed, and as plays develop, the inability to speak up helped silence the rush defense. Not communicating can keep players from getting on the same page and can create issues like players lining up in the wrong spot, opening up creases that become rushing lanes.
“It’s communication with each other,” Jewell said. “It’s maybe watching film a couple of more times during the week with each other and understanding where everyone is going to fit off of each other and just understand where everyone is going to be so you know your role specifically.”
Defensive end Parker Hesse certainly didn’t leave the film session with positive feelings. That wasn’t going to happen a day after a loss, but he saw correctable errors. It was encouraging. He noticed fit issues. Players didn’t line up where they needed to. They didn’t fill the gap they were supposed to. It’s another issue that can create larger gaps for ground attacks to run through.
“We feel like it was things in our control and things we got to fix and that’s the stuff that really hurts us when you miss things that you are capable of making,” Hesse said.
Niemann’s blood pressure rose in the film session. It seemed like with each Bison handoff he would get more frustrated. The mistakes bothered him. So did the fact these were things Iowa typically didn’t do.
The Hawkeyes seemed almost laid-back. They weren’t the aggressor. It was due, in part, to North Dakota State using misdirection with Iowa’s run read keys.
But more was going on. Players didn’t react fast enough. There were too many times the Hawkeyes were out of position.
“If you are passive it hurts you,” Niemann said. “If you are soft and not aggressive it’s going to cause problems and you are not going to be up in your fits as fast. I don’t think you can really play cautious. If you do that’s going to cause issues.”
The film session didn’t go down any better for the coaching staff. Coach Kirk Ferentz kept seeing little things go awry. Players weren’t looking where they needed to look. It led to them being out of position. There were too many missed tackles.
There was plenty North Dakota State did to top the 200-yard rushing mark, starting with how well it blocked, but for Ferentz too much of it was from things Iowa just didn’t do.
“The things that are basic to Week 1 in spring ball or Week 1 in camp,” Ferentz said, “those are the things, if you’re not doing those well — not that you’re doing them well in the first week of camp or the first week of spring, but that’s why you practice; you learn how to really fit those things so you’re a fundamentally sound team, and they were the more fundamentally sound team the other day.”
The entire film session left cornerback Greg Mabin shaking his head. The little things Ferentz noticed stood out to Mabin, too. It can be hard to explain a team not executing and getting outplayed. Several Hawkeyes described the run game issues as a lack of urgency, but it came across as something just being said because it was expected. No one put together any specific point that could prove the lack of urgency claim. It was used as a general description for a larger problem.
Mabin shot down the lack of urgency talk. Football can be quite simple. A lot came together to cause the run problems and it converged into one key point. Iowa didn’t make enough plays.
“Honestly, that’s what most of it is,” Mabin said. “As long as we are all on the same page. As long as we execute your assignment it’s pretty tough to (beat) execution.”
And it’s a lot easier to watch on film.